The Global Reach of Teilhard’s Legacy

Guest blogger Charlotte Walker-Said writes about the theological impact of Teilhard’s thought in Africa.  Thank you, Charlotte.

It is perhaps not surprising that a theologian and a scholar who thought globally would have had an impact on the thinking of other theologians and scholars in every corner of the world.  Nevertheless, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s contribution to Christian philosophy and his belief in its potential for human liberation had a particularly profound impact on African Christian leaders in West Africa during decolonization and even inspired Léopold Sédar Senghor to conceive of new communitarian ideologies as alternatives to Marxism—a strong political current in Africa during the years of national liberation.

Two Cameroonian Catholic theologians, Jean-Marc Ela and Fabien Eboussi-Boulaga, believed that Teilhard de Chardin’s interpretation of a Christian modernity could more fully develop Christianity in Africa from a missionary religion to a form of liberation theology. Teilhard de Chardin’s emphasis on the emancipatory dimension of the faith struck Ela and Eboussi-Boulaga as a potentially persuasive code to which all African Christians—in the laity as well as the clergy, Protestant as well as Catholic—could adhere in order to build consensus around a Christian approach to decolonization.

One of Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas that resonated most strongly with an African Christian audience was his futurist vision of the world described as the “Civilization of the Universal,” a humanistic and optimistic treatise which he developed between the two World Wars that posited that the general progression of civilizations was bringing them towards a panhuman convergence.  Teilhard de Chardin’s emphasis on the complementarity of the world’s civilizations and his arguments for unity through diversity appealed to African Christian politicians as well as religious leaders who wished to locate “Africa’s place” in globalized political order and economic system.

Léopold Senghor saw in Teilhard’s “Civilization of the Universal” a future in which African traditional values and cultural forms could exist in solidarity with a global community that emphasized reciprocity and similitude. Senghor believed that if Teilhard’s approach could be realized, and human races are complementary, then Africans should strive to remain true to their origins and not be too quick to break from past ideals in order to embrace western modes of living, thinking, and behaving.

Senghor also believed that African values of hospitality and community (while it is problematic to posit that such a fixed and ubiquitously held set of beliefs could exist, Senghor’s philosophy was very much a product of a time in which cultural values were considered in a more static way than in current debates) would be particularly relevant in the “Civilization of the Universal”(Senghor 1962; Senghor 1988; Mbessa 2007). Given this alternative, Senghor argued, Africans need not pursue Marxist ideologies of solidarity though labor coalitions, industrialization, and radical economic transformation so aggressively, which he argued followed European conceptions of radical change rather than seeking out indigenous approaches that were in conversation with global ideas.

Other Africans who built on Teilhard’s philosophies include Fabien Eboussi-Boulaga, an African Jesuit and ethnophilosopher who believed that Christianity could be a form of liberation more profound than national liberation. Eboussi-Boulaga was one of many Cameroonian Christians who voiced that emancipation from European imperial rule and the emergence of the nation-state form in Africa were minor victories compared to the victory that Jesus Christ called his followers to achieve.

In his 1968 work La Bantu problématique, Eboussi-Boulaga channeled the radical revisionism of Teilhard de Chardin, calling Christians to set aside official Church theories and directly interpret revelation as a sign of liberation. For Eboussi-Boulaga, the most important issue for African Christians was the liberation of their own faith and its conversion into a practical means for a true transformation of the world”(Mudimbe 1988, 173).

For Eboussi-Boulaga, African nations’ independences were of secondary importance to spiritual liberation not only because they were political (and therefore part of the terrestrial and the profane), but also because national independence was not a uniquely African achievement. Eboussi-Boulaga—like many of his political contemporaries—resented European characterizations of African nations’ achievements of self-rule as a repetition of events in the European past, and Africans’ liberation a mere result of tutelage and of a trajectory set forth as part of colonization from its inception. He believed Africa was making and would continue to make its own history, and was not following a positivist trajectory set forth in European history. As part of this, Eboussi-Boulaga was determined that spiritual emancipation and the transformation of the world order through the realization of Christian ideals would be Africa’s legacy (Ela 1993, 156).

Another one of the Teilhard’s most oft-cited theological positions by Eboussi-Boulaga, as well as his contemporary, Jean-Marc Ela and other African Catholic scholars, was his argument that God could be made visible in the totality of Christian action. In Le Milieu Divin (written in 1926-1927 but only published in 1957), Teilhard wrote, “God, in what is most alive and most incarnate, is not far from us, out of the sphere of the tangible; but he lives in each moment of action, in the work of the moment. He is, in a sense, at the tip of my pen, of my paintbrush, of my needle, of my heart, of my thoughts”(Teilhard de Chardin 1957, 53–54). The idea that God, himself could not only reside in the individual through the Holy Spirit, but could also be incarnate within individual or collective action appealed to many African Christians in the late 1950s, when nationalist articulations were assuming many forms—radical, martial, political, and spiritual.

Although many of Teilhard de Chardin’s published works emerged in conjunction with decolonization, his theology proved to have an even greater impact during the 1980s and 1990s, when economic malaise and political unrest afflicted much of sub-Saharan Africa and the African clergy sought new interpretations and lessons from Christianity in order to bring greater coherence and redress to their circumstances. Jean-Marc Ela, who had trained as a priest as well as a sociologist and became known for his emphasis on community-centered approaches to Christian theology, strongly attached to Teilhard de Chardin’s belief that God lived through just action. In 1993, Ela addressed Africa’s Christians with the statement “The world is not given to man as a complete reality, but rather as a field to be cultivated and made to produce. It is a political and social field, and thus we must progress from possessing a religion of ideas to living a faith that lives in history and confrontation”(Ela 1993, 23–24).

What is striking to the scholar of African Christianity is Teilhard de Chardin’s ability to help African theologians locate the “indigenous” or the “local” in Christianity and incorporate it into the world system. Teilhard did not call for a homogenous system of religious belief, but rather encouraged Christians to think of themselves as unique individuals working in lockstep with the peoples of the world to find a meaningful way of living. While he certainly felt strongly that Christianity could operate as a global set of human values, his writings on the salience of distinct sets of “cultural values” allowed many Africans such as Senghor, Eboussi-Boulaga, and Ela to search deeply within their own local communities for parallel systems and codes that they could bring to the universal community of Christianity to make their own contribution—rather than merely mimicking the Christianity of their missionary fathers or obeying the Christian dogmas handed down from Rome.

Teilhard de Chardin had a unique way of unlocking Christianity from its “western” moorings and arguing for its transformation as a framework for human liberation on a global scale. Many African Christians had long felt deeply devoted to the Christian faith but struggled against western determinations that it should replace—as it was incompatible with—pre-existing African cultural values and forms. Those like Senghor, Eboussi-Boulaga, and their contemporaries found a philosophical rejoinder in Teilhard de Chardin’s writings and appropriated and extended many of his philosophies in the late colonial and post-independence eras to localize the Christian faith to allow it to be more deeply transformative—for the individual as well as African societies at large.


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